I remember when my parents first played me News of the World by Queen. It’s the album that got me into music. And why not – it’s beautiful and versatile with such an eclectic mix of songs.
Imagine being six years old and hearing “We Will Rock You” with the feet stomping and hand clapping and epic guitar solo. It just resonates with you instantly and it’s something that everyone can relate to.
When that song came on, I picked up one of my parents’ tennis rackets and rocked out on my imaginary guitar, right there on the living room rug.
Not long after that, my father bought me a beautiful organ and started me on lessons. It gave me a way to learn harmony, chords, structure, and independence before I picked up any other instrument.
It was cool, but I got bored really fast. The music I was listening to wasn’t organ music. I thought man, that sound really bores me. What am I going to do with an organ? Join Deep Purple?
I wanted to pick up electric guitar or a drum set. In fact, drums weren’t even my first choice. But my dad’s work colleague had a band, and invited my dad and I to a rehearsal. I was six years old and had never played drums before, but I sat down and started playing a Beatles song. It felt completely natural.
Dad was like, “How did you do that?”
A few years later, the two of us were walking by a music store, and I was intrigued by what I saw in the window. “Look, a drum kit!”
Dad saw the excitement on my face and asked me if I would like to play. I said yes. “I’ll buy you the drums,” he cautioned, “but you have to take it seriously. You also have to take lessons.”
I thought to myself, wow…if he’s buying these for me, I don’t want to disappoint him.
So we took the drums home, and my father found a teacher. And whenever that teacher would show me something, I’d always want to take it to the next level. He’d show me a hi-hat, kick, tom, and snare pattern, and I’d add to it.
“How about this?” I’d say.
“How’d you come up with that?” he’d reply.
“I heard it in my head.”
I never wanted to ‘talk’ like other people. I always wanted to have my own version, to make things mine. So in music, I thought it was just as important to not blindly learn things and repeat them like a parrot, but to ‘be your own parrot’ and come up with new vocabulary.
After a few lessons, my teacher said to my father, “He’s really got it. I want him to sit in and play with my band.” I was 11 years old at that time, and while I was super scared, I felt honored, and agreed to do it.
The day of the gig, my mother drove me to the city center in Hanover (Germany, where I grew up). We stopped on the opposite side of the parking lot. I was so scared I couldn’t get out of the car.
“Do you want to go home?”
I hesitated before answering.
So we turned around, drove back home, and I missed my first show.
Later on, my teacher called my father. A big shower of guilt fell on me and I thought, oh, shit…now it’s my ass. After speaking with my father, he asked to talk to me.
“You were scared, weren’t you?”
“I totally understand. You have talent, so I hope you will come back next week and play with us.”
So we turned around, drove back home, and I missed my first show.
Instead of being angry with me, he was encouraging me. So the following week, my mother drove me to the gig – a little jazz open air – and I made it out of the car this time. Before I knew it, my teacher was calling me up to the stage.
While I look forward to these moments now, all I could think of as I walked up there was don’t fuck this up. I heard every footstep. No one else existed. I sat behind the drum set and didn’t even look at the audience; I just focused on playing the song.
It was a little jazz tune. The first and second parts went well, and then we got to the third part: a drum solo. I played a few turnarounds and then went back into the regular song arrangement. I was like, cool.
And all of a sudden I heard clapping.
Why is everyone clapping? The song is not over yet.
As I looked at their smiling faces, I realized that they were clapping for my drum solo. The burden flew off my shoulders, and all of a sudden I didn’t want to leave the stage. I thought, hey, I love this! This is my home.
I realized that if I give energy to the people, they send it back. To this day, it’s still important to me. Because without the audience, there’s nobody. You should make people happy with what you do.
This was a big deal for me. At the time, I couldn’t have known that getting over that nervousness would set me up for such a fulfilling career. But this wouldn’t be the last time I nearly choked onstage.
My very first drum festival was in ‘96 or ‘97 at Musikmesse in Frankfurt. I had been recording and touring with my bands and I was well established in my career at that time. But playing solo was brand new. To go on stage by myself in front of 1200 people? I had done a few intimate clinics before, but this was different.
The night before the festival, I was still busy preparing. As a guy in his 20s, I still felt like I had something to prove. I so badly wanted to make sure I didn’t suck.
Like my very first show at age 11, I was really nervous.
When it came time to play, things were going really great. People were psyched and I was having a great time.
And then, five minutes into performing…
I looked to my left and saw Simon Phillips, Kenny Aronoff, and Bill Bruford beside the stage. All three of them were watching my feet and hands.
I lost it for a good half minute. I was thinking, oh, fuck – what now? I kept playing a groove while I tried to calm myself down.
Look, Marco – if you’re nervous now because these guys are there, all the work you put in was for nothing. You can do this. Don’t let these guys distract you.
I looked to my left and saw Simon Phillips, Kenny Aronoff, and Bill Bruford beside the stage.
Something switched in my brain. I played my heart out and did whatever I could to make everyone happy, including the drummers who were watching me. I played for my life.
After I walked off stage, Simon Phillips – who is one of my dearest friends today – said to me in his British inflection: “I have no idea what you played, but it sounded amazing.”
That really resonated with me. I felt very humbled and honored. It was a defining moment in my career and I’ve never looked back.
I think everyone should realize that certain moments never go away, like when you meet your heroes or when you feel like you’ve made an impact on people.
You have to believe in what you do. Your voice will be heard. With passion and joy, your energy will project through the stage to the audience. It doesn’t matter how old or experienced you are. We’re on planet earth for such a long time with all of these wonderful people.
Don’t be afraid. Play with the purest energy that you have, and cherish these moments.
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